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Field Journal

Trash Free Trails

From The Field
Trash Free Trails Photo: Sam Needham

In conversation with Dom Ferris, founder of Trash Free Trails
Written by Tom Hill

I did my first premeditated litter pick around a year ago. That evening a few friends and I headed out onto our local trails with a bin liner each, planning to ride our usual social loop. We made it a mile or two before turning back, every black bag bulging with litter – crisp packets and chocolate-bar wrappers, cans and bottles and mountains of dog-poo bags. We were shocked. I had a natural sense of disappointment and frustration that our local community had such little respect for this corner of nature on the edge of the city. More worryingly, though, I realised that I had simply stopped seeing this litter on a day-to-day basis. Before, I would have described the woodland as relatively untouched. This sea of plastic had seeped into a subconscious normal. My perception of nature was skewed by litter.

Afterwards, though, I felt more connected to my own patch and took a greater sense of ownership. It was a double-edged sword – I was more aware of rubbish than I ever had been, but I felt empowered to make a difference. Litter picking might be a small individual action, but when multiplied it can make all the difference.

More than an eyesore

Trash Free Trails’ mission is to reduce plastic pollution on our trails and in wild places by 75 per cent by 2025. This will be achieved by informing and empowering riders, motivating and supporting community action, and campaigning for industry engagement and innovation.

My first trail clean was inspired by Trash Free Trails – then a concept and an Instagram account with a small group of active ambassadors, now a registered non-profit community interest company (CIC). As a small but vocal group of individuals began to influence their communities, it was a great example of the positive power of social media.

Few would deny that litter is an eyesore. There is a more sinister impact too. While the world is increasingly aware of the damage that plastic pollution is doing to the planet, little scientific study has been devoted to the damage caused beyond streams, rivers, and the ocean. Trash Free Trails are seeking to correct that by commissioning an academic study, ‘State of our Trails Report’, due in 2022. This will become the hub for their future work – both a benchmark and a way ahead.

Trash Free Trails Trash Free Trails
Photos: Sam Needham

Discarded energy gel sachets are a common find during organised Trash Free Trails clean-ups. A large number of them are found with the small indentations of animal teeth marks. In one of the few studies of litter, animal remains were found inside one in ten discarded plastic bottles in a roadside survey. Litter is more than eyesore – it has an environmental impact that we have barely begun to understand.

A year on from my first litter pick and momentum was growing with Trash Free Trails. In February 2020 it made plans to formally launch a larger ‘Spring Trail Clean’ as it ramped up its aims, with four times as many organised litter picks as a year ago. Then COVID-19 hit. Lockdown meant that planned gatherings had to be cancelled, travel restricted. Even picking up litter brought unforeseen risks as advice suggested that the virus could survive on surfaces for days. There was every chance that things would be derailed at the worst possible moment. What has happened has been the opposite, but more on that in a bit…

Birth of a movement

Trash Free Trails co-director and founder Dom Ferris tells a good story. He speaks with passion and a depth of thought, and wants to bring those he speaks to along with him on the journey. We begin our conversation at the birth of the Trash Free Trails idea, but wander to cover psychology, exploration, and mental health. Reducing litter pollution is a worthy enough aim as it is, but along the way Dom has learned much more about the benefits of trail cleans – benefits that go way beyond his original environmental concerns. It’s a tale that goes far beyond simply picking up a Lucozade bottle.

Over a third of 57 bottles picked up during the 2019 Spring Trail Clean at Dalby Forest, Yorkshire, were Lucozade.

In 2013 Dom was working for Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) – a charity with a similar obsession with litter and pollution. As a mountain biker as well as a surfer, Dom saw many of the issues that blighted Britain’s beaches repeated on the trails, in the woods, and on the hills. The seed was planted in his mind, but it took another four years for it to begin to fully germinate. Trash Free Trails had a digital birth at the start of 2017. Things began modestly as Dom detailed his own actions. In doing so, he started issuing a call to arms to other mountain bikers, and a small community began to build. Ben Gaby, his friend and volunteer rep at SAS, came on board after getting in touch with him to say that he had wanted to do something similar. By the end of 2017, they had organised their first official trail clean, working with the National Trust in Cornwall. It was an important step – a recognition of legitimacy, and that others had the same desire to make a difference.

Trash Free Trails Trash Free Trails
Photos: Paul Box (1,2) // James Mackeddie (3) // Chris Goodman (4)


More organised trail cleans followed. For example, there was Nesscliffe, near Shrewsbury – a place with some history. Locals and other users of the area generally saw mountain bikers as a nuisance, and as part of the problem – noisy, dangerous, causing damage to the trails. These perceptions (and, more often than not, misconceptions) are not isolated to Nesscliffe, but there was real conflict amongst trail users. The clean-up was the catalyst for dramatically changing the relationship between riders and the wider community. Bikers were actively and very visibly making a positive impact on the local environment. Over 60 people attended the Trash Free Trails clean-up day, with mountain bikers working alongside hikers, horse riders, and residents. The goodwill generated is still having a positive impact today. It’s a story that has been repeated elsewhere. Trash Free Trails’ approach of engaging, working locally, and sharing nationally was leading to unexpected benefits.

Obvious statement alert: rubbish doesn’t simply arrive on our trails. It is dropped there. Likewise, it needs someone to pick it up and take it away. Plastic doesn’t break down over any meaningful time period. But, once someone has carried that rubbish out, it’s gone* for good. When Dom worked for SAS, they would organise huge beach cleans: immensely valuable work, but a fresh load of plastic would wash up the next day – most of it not connected to the local community. There are no tides in our woods and hills. Our community is responsible for the litter that’s there. It can also solve the problem.

*OK, it’s not gone. But it can be recycled or even just disposed of responsibly.

Momentum was with Dom and his team, but as with all good stories, it wasn’t plain sailing. Dom was still working full time for SAS, living and breathing his work. Keen to build on the foundations that Trash Free Trails had now laid, he made time for that too. Something had to give. Eventually it was his mental health. Stressed and anxious, he took a sabbatical from the day job and planned a riding trip to Oregon, a journey Dom describes as a ‘purposeful adventure’ – a term that we’ll come back to. Outwardly, he used the trip – riding the 670-mile Oregon Timber Trail – to raise money for mental health charity CALM. More than that, though, he used it to test the concept of Trash Free Trails with a wider audience, and begin to shape a sustainable future for it.

When I interviewed Dom, he’d just returned from a walk in the woods. He told me about it. Standing there, in a clearing between the pine trees, he stopped, closed his eyes, and took some deep breaths. The smell took him right back to the trail in Oregon. By taking the time to appreciate what was on his doorstep, he was becoming closer to it, more aware of its natural state. He sees it as a vital step in engaging more people.

On returning from Oregon, Dom pushed Trash Free Trails forward with new energy. Rather than simply talking about what he was trying to achieve he was spending much more time talking about why. He wanted people to feel closer to their own trails; to feel a sense of ownership and therefore a desire to look after them. He took the message on the road with the Spring Trail Cleans in 2019, and it landed well, giving him the confidence to leave SAS and focus all his attention on Trash Free Trails.

Trash Free Trails Trash Free Trails
Photos: Leigh Woods // James Mackeddie // Sam Needham // Illustrations: Beth Breeden

Back to the beginning

In March 2020 the world changed. The year’s plans put on ice, how could Trash Free Trails maintain momentum?

On my first ‘one piece of exercise a day’, I noticed something different in my local woods. They were actually busier than they had been the week before. People keen to escape the confines of their home for a while were walking and running and riding.

‘We don’t have to be together to work together,’ Dom says. One side effect of the COVID-19 travel restrictions is that people are reconnecting with their local patch. They may be using the same trail seven days a week. At the same time, many of us are feeling a little lost. This huge event that is completely out of our control is unsteadying. We try to make a difference by washing hands and maintaining distance, but there’s no feedback loop, no visible enemy, and little positive news.

For many of us that daily outdoor time is a corner of normality. Time to breathe, let frustrated children (and adults) burn off some energy – self-care. What if our self-care could actually benefit others, though, and change an environment for the better? Picking up a few pieces of litter each day, sharing what you’ve done via social media, talking to others. There’s a wider community benefit, but also a personal feedback loop. Instant gratification of seeing a piece of ground that is slightly closer to how nature intended. Dom sees Trash Free Trails’ role as one of inspiring and sharing, turning the voices and actions of individuals into that of a community.

My girlfriend, Julia, took a bin liner and a few pairs of disposable gloves out with her on a walk. She filled the bag and returned home, leaving a small section of woodland a little cleaner. A couple of days later, she was out again when she spotted a local resident out with a black bag. They stopped and chatted at opposite sides of the path, and it turned out she’d spotted Julia litter picking and felt inspired to do her own bit. Actions breed actions.

Selfless Isolation Project

Keen to provide guidance and support, Trash Free Trails’ answer to the challenge of lockdown is the Selfless Isolation Project (#selfLESSisolation), asking people to individually work together to improve their local environment. It combines the group’s learning over their formative years into a nine-point guide that goes beyond telling us to pick up a plastic bottle.

The day-by-day steps:

1. Notice
All too often our brains are elsewhere, so busy pondering problems and plans that we’re rarely truly present. So, the first thing to do is, well, nothing! Simply set out on your daily exercise with the intention of truly ‘noticing’ your surroundings. Let things come to you, don’t seek them. Nothing more, nothing less.

2. Observe
If the act of noticing means that things come to you as you ride, run, or roam, then this task is about deliberately paying attention. Hopefully you will have remembered some of the things that you noticed (both good and bad, beautiful and sad). Now is the time to decide on your ‘home trail’ route and to begin taking note of the things that you find particularly striking or interesting.

3. Know
Is there a cooler feeling than spreading a map out on a table and planning an adventure? Well, actually yes, and it comes from knowing your home trails so well that you can make your own map of them! This is our favourite part of the process. It’s time to put everything that you’ve noticed and observed on your very own ‘Selfless Isolation Trail Map’ and to begin documenting the actions that you take to protect them.

4. Plan
It’s almost time to take action to protect your home trails, but before setting out on this vital mission you’ll need to make a plan. Begin by identifying the litter hotspots and your favourite places on your freshly drawn map, and decide on the most effective way to clean up your trails and/or document your journey to help inspire others. Important note: You don’t have to pick up litter to make a massive difference. If you’re more comfortable recording and reporting the things that you see, or even making a documentary about your #selfLESSisolation experiences, make a plan for those instead.

5. Document – A picture is worth a thousand words. From Blue Planet II to National Geographic’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, these incredibly talented and passionate people capture our imaginations with images. They have also broken our hearts by showing us the damage caused by climate change and plastic pollution. But, though the images of a mother pilot whale grieving over her dead baby were desperately sad, they also brought people face to face with the issue. The Monday after David Attenborough told us that terrible tale, the inboxes of conservation charities across the world were overflowing with offers of support. That one minute of footage changed the world.

6. Gather
Be it litter, data, samples, stories, experiences, opinions, hard work, toil, images, footage – the list goes on – it is totally up to you what you gather. It’s all hugely valuable evidence, and the most important thing is to compile as much we can. Of course, if you’re litter picking you’ll be making a visible, measurable difference to the health of your home trail. But, as we’ve seen with Blue Planet II and scientific reports such as ‘Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean’ (Science magazine, 2015), you don’t always have to physically pick plastic pollution up to make a difference.

7. Record
Now it’s time to set up your ‘expedition field station’ to calculate and compile your findings. This will enable you to create an impactful, scientifically robust ‘Selfless Isolation Project Report’.

8. Report
This is where the hard work really begins! Before you skip straight to the ‘Reward’ section, please consider why you have taken part in our project. If one of those reasons is that you want to help us protect our trails and wild places for everyone, forever, then this step is important. This is where we present irrefutable evidence of the state of our trails. Evidence that, when combined with that of thousands of other trail lovers like you, will help us create Trash Free Trails.

9. Reward
This is the most important part by far. Thank you – you are one of our biggest ‘whys’. Now turn off your computer, put down your phone and head out to ride, run, or roam on the very home trails that you have just helped to protect.

Trash Free Trails Trash Free Trails
Photos: Sam Needham

How does one person make a difference?

That’s the story of how one person trying to make a difference has grown to become many people with the same aim. Dom talked about his trip to America as a purposeful adventure. We don’t need to travel to another country to do this; in fact we barely need to travel at all. We can all enjoy the benefits of getting to know our own local wild spaces a little better, then take small actions to care for them. In doing so, we can be part of something larger and make an impact that goes beyond our doorsteps.

I call Dom to clarify a couple of details for the story. It’s Earth Day and the Selfless Isolation Project has just launched. He’s already got stories of people across the world following the steps. It’s a true example of ‘think global, act local’, and one that feels like it has only just begun.

Trash Free Trails is Dom Ferris and Ben Gaby. They are supported by an A-Team of regional ambassadors and many other individuals who are all making a difference in their own local areas.

They are partnered with Trek Bicycles UK, BikePark Wales, RideGuard, Hope Technology, British Cycling, Pedal MTB, SHIFT Active Media, and Outdoor Provisions.

The State of our Trails Report is due to be published in June 2022. This will be completed as part of a postgraduate research project with academics from Bangor University, and produced in conjunction with Bangor University. Trash Free Trails is currently negotiating corporate support for the project.

Activity ideas and more are available on the Trash Free Trails website, along with specific COVID-19 safety guidance.

Instagram: @trashfreetrails
#trashfreetrails #selfLESSisolation #DIYspringtrailclean

Written by Tom Hill // @24tom



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